Dissident republicans have been accused of murdering two men in Northern Ireland in summary execution style shootings over alleged criminality.
Barry McCrory, 35, was gunned down in a flat in Londonderry city centre this morning, less than 24 hours after the body of father-of-four Kevin Kearney was found dumped in a lake in north Belfast. The 46-year-old had also been shot.
Both victims were known to police for previous offending.
While detectives have yet to officially attribute blame, the finger of suspicion has been pointed firmly in the direction of violent republican extremists who in the past have carried out attacks as a way of administering their own brutal form of vigilante justice.
With dissidents also intent on destabilising the peace process, it may not be coincidence that the murders come as Northern Ireland prepares to welcome more than a hundred business leaders to a major conference aimed at attracting overseas investment to the region.
Tomorrow’s high profile event in Belfast will be attended by Prime Minister David Cameron.
One dissident group, which styles itself as the “IRA”, has claimed responsibility for shooting Mr Kearney as he walked his dogs in Belfast’s Alexandra Park.
The same group ambushed and killed a prison officer, David Black, when they opened fire on his car as he drove to work on the M1 motorway between Dungannon, Co Tyrone, and Belfast in November last year.
Stormont’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said dissident republicans were behind the two latest killings.
Police are so far treating the incidents as two separate murder investigations, with early indications that the shootings are linked to localised criminality in the respective cities.
Mr McGuinness said: “Over the past 24 hours two men have been murdered in Belfast and Derry. I condemn these murders without equivocation.
“Those responsible claim to be dissident republicans. They are not republicans of any shade. They are entirely motivated by criminal intent.”
At around 11am today a man carrying a rucksack burst into a first floor apartment on Derry’s Shipquay Street and shot Mr McCrory. His partner was in the flat at the time and though uninjured had to be treated for severe shock.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officer leading the investigation, Detective Chief Inspector Ian Harrison appealed for information from the public.
“Shipquay Street is a busy and popular part of the city and at that time of the day there will have been residents going about their daily lives, people on their way to work and tourists walking around or out shopping,” he said.
“I am confident that someone will have seen the shooter enter or exit the flat.”
He added: “We have already heard many within the local community openly condemn this murder and the people of this city are rightly outraged by what has happened here today. That condemnation needs to be backed up with information. Barry’s killer needs to be found and dealt with by the courts and his family deserve answers.”
Derry is the current UK City of Culture and, even though it is a major base for dissident republicans, it has been largely free of any major terrorist incidents since January.
Mr Kearney, from Dunmore Avenue in north Belfast, went missing on Tuesday morning after failing to return home after walking his two dogs.
He had left his daughter to school earlier that morning.
His body was found in the nearby lake at 3.30pm yesterday.
Detective Chief Inspector Justyn Galloway described his murder as “cold-blooded and callous”.
“Regardless of Kevin’s lifestyle, regardless of his previous offending, there is no justification whatsoever for someone to shoot him dead,” he said.
Mr Galloway said he believed Mr Kearney, who was wearing dark clothing with bright blue trainers, was killed at around 9.15am on Tuesday.
A silver Peugeot 406 car police believe may be linked to the shooting was found burned out at Donore Court in the New Lodge area of north Belfast around 9.30am on Tuesday.
Stormont’s First Minister Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and the Republic of Ireland’s deputy prime minister Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore have all condemned the killings.
“These murders have sent shockwaves across the community in North Belfast and Londonderry,” said Mr Robinson.
“They are a grim reminder of the kind of violence which the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want to see consigned to the past.
“The rule of law is absolutely paramount and there can be no justification for anyone taking justice into their own hands. Anyone with information about these shootings must bring it to the police and I would hope that those responsible can be swiftly brought to justice.”
Ms Villiers said: “The murders of two men in Londonderry and North Belfast are abhorrent and brutal crimes, for which there is no excuse. This type of cowardly vigilante justice is never a substitute for policing and the force of law.”
Mr Gilmore said the killings were “vicious, brutal and cowardly”.
“The people who claim responsibility for this have no mandate and their actions lead nowhere,” he said.
“The people of Belfast and Derry, and indeed people all over Ireland, have moved on. There is no justification for such crimes against the community.
“I would call on anyone who has information about these murders to give their full support to the PSNI in finding those who are responsible.”
In Derry, local SDLP Assembly member Pat Ramsey has called on business leaders and fellow politicians to gather in the city’s Guildhall Square to observe a two minute silence tomorrow.
“This was an appalling and disgraceful incident which has left the city in shock,” he said.
“Coming at a time when things were really looking up for Derry and when people had such as sense of pride and optimism it is terrible that we are dragged back with this awful shooting.”
The trade union movement has added its voice to the wave of condemnation.
Peter Bunting, Irish Congress of Trade Unions Assistant General Secretary, said: “The group behind these murders claim to be protecting ‘their communities’, but they speak for no-one but themselves.
“They are selfish egotists, and their claims fool nobody.”
He added: “These tiny and marginal groups have no real support in any community, and they have no right or mandate to act as judge, jury and death squad.”